Poor Luke Shaw, it appears nothing can go right for the youngster. Even the title of ‘most polarizing Manchester United player’ was snatched from his grasp when Jesse Lingard put pen to paper on a new four-year deal. Then, after helping to rescue a point against Everton, his contribution was round mocked. “Shaw’s Shanked Redemption” was Raphael Honigstein’s response to the full-back’s hacked right-footed effort that led to United’s last minute penalty against the Toffees.
That jibe was mild compared to José Mourinho’s assessment the draw. The manager concedes that Shaw retains the potential to succeed, but needs to change his “professional” and “football” brain. Indeed, the 21-year old would not have even stepped onto the pitch had it not been for an injury to Ashley Young.
"The manager concedes that Shaw retains the potential to succeed, but needs to change his “professional” and “football” brain. "
“He was doing things in the second half when he was reacting to my voice,” Mourinho said. “If he was on the other side, for sure he would not do it. I was thinking for him and leading his performance. If he was on the other side it would not be the same and at his level it is not possible. He has to improve and we have to help.”
United’s manager offered only scraps of encouragement, admitting that Shaw has a future at the club but added, tellingly, that United cannot wait. This blast followed Mourinho’s criticism of Shaw before the match, when he stated that United’s only natural left-back was behind Ashley Young, Matteo Darmian and Daley Blind in the pecking order.
Shaw’s treatment provoked a heated debate, with pro-Shaw and pro-Mourinho factions falling into line. The cry that ‘José can’t nurture young talent’ was met with the rebuttal that ‘Shaw is not professional enough.’
These arguments, as general as they both are, have some merit. After all, the Portuguese boss is not renowned for bringing through young talent, while Shaw’s professionalism has been questioned by Louis van Gaal, Roy Hodgson, Mauricio Pochettino and Nigel Adkins. Phil Neville waded into the debate suggesting there must be something “fundamentally wrong” with Shaw to provoke such a harsh approach from Mourinho, adding that Sir Alex Ferguson would have adopted a similar line.
That said, Mourinho saw fit to pick Shaw consistently in the early part of the season, at least until United’s loss against Watford where the first cracks appeared in their relationship.
“Our left-back is 25 metres away instead of five,” said Mourinho when summing up Watford’s second goal in a 3-1- victory. “Give him 25 metres and you have to press. But no, we wait. It is a tactical but also mental attitude.”
The key words could be “mental attitude,” with Shaw still overcoming the scar of an injury that nobody would wish on any footballer. The 2015/16 campaign was declared “the season of Luke Shaw” by Van Gaal, but any hopes of seeing the defender blossom was cruelly cut down by Héctor Moreno in United’s Champions League clash with PSV Eindhoven.
The defender, speaking to the Guardian, opened up about the passage of play that led to the injury, illuminating the mixed feelings the player still holds.
“I partly blame myself,” he said. “I’d run into their penalty area and I should have shot with my right foot but I wanted to come inside. I wanted to be on my left foot. And then, obviously, the tackle. I don’t even want to think about the tackle, to be honest. At the time I thought: ‘Give him the benefit of the doubt, it wasn’t actually a bad tackle.’ But the more I’ve seen it since, the more I think: ‘You know, that was actually a really bad challenge.’”
That Shaw began by self apportioning blame says much, as if there’s an element of doubt lingering in his system. In that light it’s hard not to feel sympathy for a player who suffered an injury so horrific that it threatened to end his career almost before it had a chance to begin.
The physical scars may have healed, but the psychological ones may still be there. That, of course, is understandable given that Shaw went through four separate operations, a grueling rehabilitation programme, and will still be reminded of the incident whenever he feels pain in the affected area. Physically, Shaw is functional, but is there an internal safety mechanism kicking in designed to prevent a repeat of that horrific moment? That’s speculative, of course, and even Shaw may not know the answer in an episode that is a difficult to confront, let alone process and finally find some peace.
If anything the natural reaction is to shy away from readily putting one’s body on the line after suffering such a traumatic set-back. It’s easy to question Shaw’s strength of character, but the baggage is also tremendous. It is enough to tackle the journey of reestablishing himself in the team, seemingly against the odds, while being under the media’s microscopic gaze. The common refrain is that Shaw should be made of sterner stuff, but it may be unfair to treat him as such.
Yet, Shaw doesn’t help himself either. Rumours about the player’s diet have circled for some time, while the admissions that he was prepared to “take it easy” after the World Cup didn’t paint the player in the best light. It’s also telling that Shaw best responds when given the kind of tough love that José has been serving in abundance.
Whether the defender is still coming to terms with his own footballing mortality or not, ultimately the onus is on Shaw to rescue his career. It’s ok for for Shaw to defiantly proclaim that he’ll fight for United, but if the penny has only now dropped then that is a concern.
Then there are the rumours that Mourinho still holds a grudge against the player, dating back to the time the full-back opted not to join him at Chelsea. Mourinho ‘insider’ Duncan Castles has speculated that Mourinho is in the market for another left-back, which is not encouraging for Shaw given the journalist’s closeness to the Portuguese boss.
Mourinho has made it clear that he cannot afford to stand still. United cannot carry a player no matter their physical and mental scars. That’s football. Just perhaps, after everything Shaw has been through, he needs a change of scenery to move on. Nobody would begrudge him that, although his first step should be to help himself by evolving his professional habits.
It is possible to square sympathy for Shaw, while harbouring a sense of frustration at the player’s attitude. He is a sinner who has been sinned against.